Like most writers who meet young, Debra Jo Immergut and I have been talking about writing our whole lives. From Iowa City’s workshops and bars to NYC, where we struggled to raise kids and pay rent, to opposite sides of Massachusetts, where we live now with our respective families, we’ve been wondering aloud together what sustains our motivation to write when there is always so much else to do.
The exciting occasion for this latest conversation is Immergut’s debut novel, The Captives, on June 5—26 years after selling a short-story collection not long after Iowa. The Captives is part of a two-book deal at Ecco/HarperCollins and will be published in a dozen countries over the next year. Publisher’s Weekly praises this literary novel as “ingenious” and “nail-biting,” and Booklist calls it a “stunning debut.”
1. The Long Game
The Millions: You published a collection of short fiction, Private Property, in 1992, just after Iowa, and now you have your debut novel coming out. That’s a pretty unusual publishing trajectory. How does it feel to debut again? What stopped, or stalled, in the past, and what inspired you to return to your work?
Debra Jo Immergut: First, it’s clear to me now that I was woefully unprepared the first time around. In New York right out of college, I enrolled in a nighttime creative writing class at Columbia U, mostly because I hated being a bored entry-level office worker. In quick succession after that, I applied and was accepted to Iowa, then sold that story collection, basically with the only six or seven stories I’d ever written. That was freaky and wonderful. But I also found the publishing experience, being reviewed, giving readings, dealing with world-weary agents and editors, all that, vertigo-inducing. Publishing the tender stories of one’s youth, putting them out there for everyone to ogle, can make a girl feel a bit vulnerable! This came as a surprise to me. That’s how green I was.
Then I wrote a novel that didn’t sell. At the same time, I became a parent and needed to earn money, so I decided to find myself a full-time job again. I kept writing—on my own, in writing groups—but had little urge to pursue publishing in any dedicated way until I was laid off in 2015. I knew I was ready and to my great joy, I discovered that all the miles and years behind me, and especially the defeats, seemed to give me new power and a more versatile set of tools. And I just felt tough enough to take whatever reaction the world was going to give me. I sent the manuscript that would become The Captives to an incredible literary agent, Soumeya Bendimerad Roberts, who plucked it out of her digital slush pile. Soumeya offered brilliant feedback and helped me nail the ending, and for that I will be eternally thankful. She quickly sold it in a kind of surreal, dream-come-true scenario, and here I am, debuting again, with much more equanimity and huge gratitude. So, yes, a long trajectory—but how it was meant to be, for me, apparently.
Scott, how about you—do you feel like life has made you a better writer?
TM: Probably, but not in a direct way. I’m not sure my craft skills are any better. I’m maybe more patient. Certainly more vulnerable, which just comes with the territory when you have three kids. But in a larger sense, it’s that vulnerability that re-engaged me in writing. One of the few business books worth reading is called Only the Paranoid Survive. It’s written by the late Andrew Grove, the legendary former CEO of Intel. A Hungarian Jew born in 1936, Grove evaded capture from both Nazis and communists in his life, so he comes by his title honestly. As I went along in my own career, I started to understand what he meant from another perspective—how much of American business runs on fear. It seemed to me that the consequences of this fact—psychological, emotional, social—weren’t something that could be acknowledged. Fiction became the only way I could tell the truth about work.
2. The Iowa Effect
TM: There’s a pretty familiar critique of writing programs—how they have a deadening or homogenizing effect on American writing—that keeps appearing in the press. You can count on one every couple years, like a spring snowstorm in Boston. Laura Miller wrote a broadside for Salon in 2011 that’s still circulating. And there was recently a reprise in The Atlantic. Of course, all institutions have biases, and the Workshop is no exception. But looking back, what’s your take on the Workshop’s overall impact on your development as a writer?
DI: I don’t think I’d be a writer without Iowa, honestly. My main challenge over the years has been believing I was worthy. Being admitted to Iowa made that outlandish dream seem just a bit more within reach. And just occupying a spot at the same table as the writers who taught me—Elizabeth Tallent, T.C. Boyle, James Alan McPherson, Francine Prose, Tom Jenks, Allan Gurganus—that was so legitimizing. And of course, two years to just write. And the community of my peers…like you, and my husband John. Definitely the most important takeaway.
TM: I totally agree. More than anything else, Iowa made it OK to own your ambition. It wasn’t embarrassing to leave some social event to write—which felt excruciatingly pretentious before to me. But how about what you learned? I remember Frank Conroy saying something like, “We can’t teach writing but we can put the writer in the path of inspiration.” Or maybe that was in the marketing material. See, the adman in me has blurred all the boundaries. What about you? Did you “learn” how to write there?
DI: It’s murky, exactly what we got schooled in at Iowa. Life lessons, absolutely—I was 23, and it was a wild mess of possibility there. A lot of what I took away about writing, though, seems due to random luck and chemistry, looking back. I landed in a workshop with Madison Smartt Bell. His work then was all about youth and darkness and brutal honesty—and his model gave me courage to delve into the trickier parts of my own experience. I wasn’t really doing that when I arrived—but by the time I left, I was poking into all kinds of suburban American twistedness.
Iowa and maybe all good MFA programs will help you wrap your mind around sentences, tone, and how to build those things into a compelling short story. They might help you find your voice—or, if you aren’t careful about what you’re soaking up, they might sway your voice toward whatever is the prevailing tone of the moment. Looking back at my short stories in Private Property, I think I did get a bit confused at times. But that’s what being a young writer is about, right? Absorbing influence, trying to locate your voice among many others. All these years later, all that has left just a faint residue. I spend exactly no time thinking about voice.
Now I think more about the reader’s’ experience, and that’s where I’ve had to teach myself all sorts of foundational tactics that were not talked about at Iowa. How to construct the framework of a strong plot, how to slowly delineate a fully realized character over 300 pages or more, how to keep storylines moving and shifting in surprising and believable ways. In The Captives, I tried to illuminate both my characters by tracing the two opposing desires that drive them—the yearning for freedom versus the longing for redemption and moral clarity. Both Frank and Miranda are driven by these desires, but they’re in constant flux. That builds character—but also builds a lot of conflict and tension between them—and that gave me plenty of ideas for building my plot. And it feels true to life, I think…I mean, the underlying drivers of our decisions really do change enormously over time.
TM: Iowa was essential for me too in the way that it demystified the actual career of writing. That being said, I’ve always found the term “workshop” to be a misleading metaphor for a writing program. I understand that it’s linked to the romance of the American craftsperson as a symbol of authenticity: simple, honest, true—especially in opposition to those decadent Europeans. But writing is not making a table. I found the workshop—back then at least—tended to privilege craft over plot. We rarely spoke about character development or scale with a few exceptions. One of my favorite moments in James Alan McPherson’s class was a critique of one of my all-dressed-up-with-no-place-to-go stories. I don’t remember his exact words, and I can’t possibly reproduce his style, but it was something like: “So, if you are writing a story about two ladies having tea and then you mention that a bear has entered the room and started smashing things up, but you keep writing about the two ladies, well…the reader is probably going to be distracted.” What you call the reader’s experience is the taking-care-of-business part of writing that isn’t about lyrical sentences. It’s about sustaining attention.
DI: Definitely. Question for you, Scott: What do you think we gained and lost by not pursuing academic careers, as most of our classmates did?
TM: Funny you mention it. I think it’s a really big question for any writer or aspiring artist. Especially for young people who have passion but lack context. It’s hard to even imagine the trade-offs of a so-called “writer’s life” beyond the cliches. I’m not sure if I lacked confidence in my work or was just too lazy and bourgie. Part of the confessional truth for me is that I really hate applying for grants and awards to support a family. I blame my father. Probably something I should explore in therapy. My work in advertising and strategy has, for all its flaws, given me access to all kinds of crazy people and experiences, and a relatively steady income when I’m not getting fired, which happens more than is ideal. But I do teach a grad class one night a week now in Boston. And I love it. Teaching is my last idealism. Maybe I had to leave the church to keep my religion.
DI: I also feared I’d feel suffocated in the academic hothouse. But with that fork in the road far behind me now, I can honestly say 15 years in corporate magazine publishing—9 to 5 in a cubicle five days a week—was pretty stultifying, too! And my friends who teach have written and published much more, so I do feel like it was a real trade-off and I paid a price, turning away from that. When I was laid off from my job in 2015, I applied for a MacDowell Colony fellowship (yes, it is a form of writing grant—four weeks of freedom to create at no cost, gorgeous and delicious). At dinner the first night there, I talked to the other fellows and realized that my coming straight from a full-time office job made me a freak, an outlier. These people had all been living the artists’ life you describe—grants, residencies, teaching, and whatever else they needed to devote themselves to their art. Of course this made feel paralyzed by imposter syndrome for the entire first week. But then I just decided, fuck it, I’m going to embrace this difference, and think about what it took to find meaning and sometimes even joy in that corporate cubicle. I poured that energy into my work, and it comes out in my Captives characters and even more in my second novel, which is all about how one can be driven to desperate measures trying to balance creative work and paycheck work.
Interestingly, I’m now doing some more stints teaching, and I’m totally enjoying it…so maybe we’re both veering back in that direction after opting out.
3. Genre Bending
TM: The Captives is being called a literary thriller, a psychological thriller, a plot-driven literary novel…What does writing to so-called genre mean for a literary writer? Does the distinction still matter? How did it shift your approach?
DI: It’s been fascinating to watch people variously classify The Captives, because it really does seem to straddle the boundaries. But for me, there is only careful writing and crap writing—and maybe I’d say there is another level that is reserved for astounding writing. Yes, we can call books in which crimes are committed crime novels—as mine is called, sometimes. Books that have thrilling plots can be called thrillers, as mine is called sometimes. I’m OK with that. I try to be a careful writer and create work that is as original and textured as my addled brain will allow. I think a lot of people who are currently tagged as genre authors do that. Look at John le Carré’s characters…those are complicated people. And “literary writers” can be pretty careless. The term “literary” can be used to cover up a multitude of sins against readers. We should cheer for writers who pay painstaking attention to language and character, who are ambitious, challenging, and pushing the form forward. I just don’t know if we should label them.
I enjoy constructing a story with pace and twists, but that’s not what drives me. The big unanswered questions are really what make me sit in the chair. Does that make me a literary writer or a genre writer?
TM: This gets us to maybe the only frame on this question that really matters, which is marketing. I’ve been doing this strategy thing for 20 years now, so I can say with some confidence that classifications matter. There is a famous experiment that the design firm Ideo performed in grocery stores. They designed a shopping cart that they partitioned into separate sections for vegetables, fruits, meats, etc. They found that when they designated bigger areas for vegetables, people bought more vegetables. A lot more. Genre is, obviously, a powerful framing device.
DI: If you play with crossing or mixing genres, you have to bet on confounding some readers’ expectations. But ideally, I win them over with my story’s charms. That’s the goal.
TM: Yes. Beyond the market, the dream is that people read our stories and books on their own terms. And if that’s the goal, if we want to blow people’s minds (in the best way) to create powerful experiences that linger, then we have to risk striking out into new territory, including mixing genres.
DI: Definitely. However my work gets tagged, I’m looking for that brain-gut connection—I want to provoke readers intellectually and viscerally. Revving the pulse, turning a twist in the stomach or the heart, maybe making a bit of sweat pop up. To cause a deep stirring in people one has never even laid eyes on…to me, that’s a writer’s magical power.
Out this week: Kudos by Rachel Cusk; There There by Tommy Orange; The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward; Days of Awe by A.M. Homes; The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong; Upstate by James Wood; Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy; Sweet and Low by Nick White; Sick by Porochista Khakpour; The Captives by Debra Jo Immergut; Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson; Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt; and Florida by Lauren Groff.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. Let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments, and get excited for the GREAT SECOND-HALF PREVIEW, which we will roll out in the second week of July.
(Also, as Millions founder and publisher C. Max Magee wrote recently, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do.)
Kudos by Rachel Cusk: When I first encountered Cusk’s writing in the mid-aughts I wrote her off as an author of potentially tedious domestic drama. I was woefully wrong. It’s true Cusk is a chronicler of the domestic: she is as known for her memoirs of motherhood and divorce as she is for her novels, but her writing is innovative, observant, and bold. The New Yorker declared that with the trilogy that her latest novel Kudos completes, Cusk has “renovated” the novel, merging fiction with oral history, retooling its structure. Cusk has said: “I’ve never treated fiction as a veil or as a thing to hide behind, which perhaps was, not a mistake exactly, but a sort of risky way to live.” (Anne)
There There by Tommy Orange: Set mostly in Oakland, Orange’s polyphonic novel describes the disparate but connected lives of group of Native Americans, many of them self-identified “urban Indians,” who come together for the Great Oakland Powwow. There, personal and communal and national histories propel events–and his cast of characters–toward a shocking denouement. Orange’s novel has been called a “new kind of American epic” by the New York Times; read more here. (Lydia)
Florida by Lauren Groff: After collecting fans like Barack Obama with her bestselling novel Fates and Furies, Groff’s next book is a collection of short stories that center around Florida, “the landscape, climate, history, and state of mind.” Included is ”Dogs Go Wolf,” the haunting story that appeared in The New Yorker earlier in the year. In a recent interview, Groff gave us the lay of the land: “The collection is a portrait of my own incredible ambivalence about the state where I’ve lived for twelve years...I love the disappearing natural world, the sunshine, the extraordinary and astonishing beauty of the place as passionately as I hate the heat and moisture and backward politics and the million creatures whose only wish is to kill you.” (Claire)
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li: A family chronicle, workplace drama, and love story rolled into one, Li’s debut chronicles the universe of the Beijing Duck House restaurant of Rockville, Md., run by a family and long-time employees who intertwine in various ways when disaster strikes. Lorrie Moore raves, “her narratives are complex, mysterious, moving, and surprising.” Read an excerpt from the novel here at Buzzfeed. (Lydia)
The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward: A poet’s memoir in prose and verse about a tempestuous adolescence in England, where the author was born to immigrant parents and raised by Seventh-Day Adventist grandparents. The memoir describes her experiences with drugs and alcohol, her relationships with men and with sex work, the struggles of her brother, and her development as an artist. A starred Kirkus review says “Daley-Ward has quite a ferociously moving story to tell.” (Lydia)
Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg: A work of speculative historical fiction exploring queer and trans histories through the story of notorious 19th-century London thieves Jack Sheppard and Edgeworth Bess. This is a publishing event, the first work of fiction to be released by esteemed editor Chris Jackson’s One World imprint, and it has received accolades from every trade publication and a host of writers including Victor LaValle, China Miéville, and Maggie Nelson. (Lydia)
Ayiti by Roxane Gay: This is a reissue of Roxane Gay’s first book, a collection of short stories about Haiti and the diaspora, with two new stories. Ayiti was first published by the small press Artistically Declined Press in 2011, before the author was routinely at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Kirkus says “Gay has addressed these subjects with more complexity since, but this debut amply contains the righteous energy that drives all her work.” (Lydia)
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: This third novel from the acclaimed author of The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House interlaces the story of an art gallery director whose friends are succumbing to the AIDS epidemic in 1980s Chicago with a mother struggling to find her estranged daughter 30 years later in contemporary Paris. “The Great Believers is by turns funny, harrowing, tender, devastating, and always hugely suspenseful,” says Margot Livesey, author of Mercury. (Michael)
Good Trouble by Joseph O’Neill: Frequent New Yorker and Harper’s readers will know that O’Neill has been writing a lot of short fiction lately. With the new Good Trouble, the Netherland author now has a full collection, comprised of 11 off-kilter, unsettling stories. Their characters range from a would-be renter in New York who can’t get anyone to give him a reference to a poet who can’t decide whether or not to sign a petition. (Thom)
Days of Awe by A.M. Homes: A new collection of stories from the prolific author of May We Be Forgiven featuring humorous, melancholy reflections on American life. The title story involves friends becoming lovers at a conference about genocides. The great Zadie Smith calls it “a razor-sharp story collection from a writer who is always ‘furiously good.'” (Lydia)
The Good Son by You-jeong Jeong (translated by Chi-Young Kim): South Korea’s best-selling crime novelist is a woman, although she is nonetheless marketed as “the Stephen King of Korea.” This novel, a sensation in South Korea and her first to be translated into English, is a psychological thriller involving a possible matricide, for “fans of Jo Nesbo and Patricia Highsmith.” (Lydia)
Upstate by James Wood: It’s been 15 years since Wood’s first novel, The Book Against God, was published. What was Wood doing in the meantime? Oh, just influencing a generation of novelists from his perch at The New Yorker, where his dissecting reviews also functioned as miniature writing seminars. He also penned a writing manual, How Fiction Works. His sophomore effort concerns the Querry family, who reunite in upstate New York to help a family member cope with depression and to pose the kinds of questions fiction answers best: How do people get through difficulty? What does it mean to be happy? How should we live our lives? (Hannah)
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori): A 36-year-old woman in modern-day Tokyo has worked a convenience store for 18 years of her life, watching family and friends pairing off, having children, or climbing professional ladders. She eventually enters into a sham marriage with a coworker to embody an idealized notion of adulthood, but the plan backfires, and the book is a meditation on work, life, and “normalcy.” Kirkus says “Murata skillfully navigates the line between the book’s wry and weighty concerns and ensures readers will never conceive of the ‘pristine aquarium’ of a convenience store in quite the same way.” (Lydia)
Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy: A collection of linked stories about a family devastated by the Sri Lankan civil war, which claims the lives of a mother and two sons. The father and remaining daughter flee to New Jersey, and the collection moves across time and place and between points of view to describe the dislocation of its characters and the enduring consequences of trauma. Publisher’s Weekly calls it “a wonderful, auspicious debut.” (Lydia)
History of Violence by Édouard Louis (translated by Lorin Stein): A fictionalized account of a true story. The author survived a violent sexual assault and this novelization exploring the aftermath, including his return to his family’s village, became a bestseller in France for its frank reckoning with the effects of sexual violence, as well a broader look at French society. (Lydia)
Sweet and Low by Nick White: A new entry in the field of southern gothic (complete with Faulkner homage), a collection of stories exploring masculinity, sexuality, and place in the deep south that has garnered praise from Jesmyn Ward and Alissa Nutting. Publisher’s Weekly called it “an atmospheric and expertly crafted collection.” (Lydia)
We Begin Our Ascent by Joe Mungo Reed: A debut novel that follows the travails of a team of professional cyclists–who happen to be doping–in the Tour de France, exploring ideas of competition, ambition, and team dynamics. The novel has drawn several comparisons to Don DeLillo, and George Saunders raved: “A dazzling debut by an exciting and essential new talent: fast, harrowing, compelling, masterfully structured, genuinely moving. Reed is a true stylist.” (Lydia)
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin: A collection of essays exploring the ubiquitous “dead girl” in popular culture, using shows like Twin Peaks and Pretty Little Liars to point to the misogyny that thrums through so many of the cultural products we consume. These are interwoven with personal essays about her arrival in Los Angeles. Kirkus calls it “an illuminating study on the role women play in the media and in their own lives.” (Lydia)
Sick by Porochista Khakpour: In her much anticipated memoir, Khakpour chronicles her arduous experience with illness, specifically late-stage Lyme disease. She examines her efforts to receive a diagnosis and the psychological and physiological impact of being so sick for so long, including struggles with mental health and addiction. Khakpour’s memoir demonstrates the power of survival in the midst of pain and uncertainty. (Read an excellent piece in The New Yorker here.) (Zoë)
The Captives by Debra Jo Immergut: Immergut published a collection of short stories in 1992, shortly after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but her debut novel comes over 25 years later, a literary thriller that takes place in a prison where a woman is serving a sentence for second-degree murder. Her appointed psychologist once pined for her in high schhol. Publishers’ Weekly says “Immergut’s book begins as in incisive psychological portrait of two mismatched individuals and morphs into a nail-biting thriller.” (Lydia)
Tonight I’m Someone Else by Chelsea Hodson: Examining the intersection of social media and intimacy, the commercial and the corporeal, the theme of Hodson’s essay collection is how we are pushed and pulled by our desire. The Catapult teacher’s debut has been called “racingly good…refreshing and welcome” by Maggie Nelson. (Tess)
Fight No More by Lydia Millet: Millet’s 2010 collection Love in Infant Monkeys was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Eight years later she’s released another collection of stories arranged around a real estate broker and their family as they struggle to reconnect. Millet’s satire is well-known for it’s sharp brutality—and its compassionate humanity. Both sides are on full display here. (Kaulie)
Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt: On the heels of her critically praised debut, The Daughters, Celt gives us a love-triangle story that, according to the publisher, is “inspired by the infamous Nabokov marriage, with a spellbinding psychological thriller at its core.” The protagonist is a young Russian refugee named Zoya who becomes entangled with her boarding school’s visiting writer, Leo Orlov, and his imperious wife, Vera. Our own Edan Lepucki praised the novel as “a sexy, brilliant, and gripping novel about the fine line between passion and obsession. I am in awe of Celt’s mastery as a prose stylist and storyteller; I can’t stop thinking about this amazing book.” (Sonya)